New biopic tells story of fiercely optimistic human rights crusader, Christina Noble
Irish activist Christina Noble remains ever the optimist despite lifelong tragedies. We talk to her about her foundation and Stephen Bradley's new biopic: the aptly titled Noble.
Christina Noble Interview
Given the turbulence of her past, you might expect to encounter a woman cautiously closed off, solemn and wounded. But Christina Noble couldn't be further from it: at 71, she's is warm, riotously funny, and impossibly animated – everything we come to expect from comedian Deirdre O’Kane’s boisterous onscreen portrayal of her in Bradley's film. Our interview collapses into the kind of relaxed, casual conversation you would expect from old friends reunited: filled with cigarette smoke, laughter and the singing of Irish folk songs.
Her weathered past is not absent, it is etched into the lines on her face, acknowledged and unrepressed at the forefront of her stories.
New Noble film trailer:
Noble's optimistic perspective on her life is echoed by director Stephen Bradley’s portrayal of her – a picture that “could have been a lot harsher...but you have to have a film with balance, otherwise people are too upset and too saddened."
A sad story it is: born in the Irish slums, Noble was raised by her mother while her father squandered away the family's money in pubs. Following her mother's death when Christina was 10, she and her siblings were separated, her father leading her to believe they had died. "Ours was a family shattered like glass, into pieces. I tried to pick those pieces up, but it's hard to put the bits back together – it’s almost impossible. You can piece it together with little bits over time maybe, but you'll always be able to see the cracks."
Religion has been one of the most important inspirations in Christina Noble's life, but the endurance of her faith was not without personal struggle. Raped while living homeless in a park in Ireland, she conceived a child. Turning to a convent with her newborn and nowhere else to go, she was forced by the nuns to give the baby up for adoption.
About the cruelty she experienced at this time, Noble is stoical: "Priests, nuns and followers are no different. You get some cruel individuals in all walks of life, all institutions of the world, that’s just the way it is. It doesn’t make it right, but you have to forgive.”
Noble then married and had three more children – but her husband quickly became abusive. It was then that she began to have dreams of Vietnam – and as soon her children had grown, she took off East.
Deirdre O’Kane, Noble (2016)
When Christina arrived in post-war Vietnam, it was not the poverty that horrified her, but the fact that "thirteen years after the war, nothing had changed, Vietnam was still embargoed: trade embargo, humanitarian embargo, just left standing still. I was just an Irish woman on the other side of the world."
She began to see her own difficult childhood in the faces of the impoverished children. "I saw these children running and screaming, contorted in pain. I could identify with that pain, their faces, the expression, albeit my life was different, but relatively to me there was something in common between us."
Noble vowed to help them, but she admits she "knew nothing really. Where was I to begin?” Her humility is suddenly undercut with a defiant “but even the government couldn’t help but love me in the end, in the end they could tell I was for real. They could tell I loved the kids.”
After years working tirelessly for her new foundation, Christina was eventually awarded the Vietnamese "Friend of Peace". She suddenly launches into three perfectly pitched verses of the song she sang to the Vietnamese president, 'Irish Hat on Rye'. "It’s about forced immigration, it’s about pain and suffering. And I guess it’s also really about the war, and how America and Vietnam fell out of love with one another." But, she adds, "The Vietnamese still have a love for the Americans...Despite everything.”
As for Christina's foundation today, she is immensely proud. Her young volunteers in particular, she says, "are brilliant. They really understand. The young generations will be the next presidents of the world. That’s why we shouldn’t have poverty and homelessness and wars, because it breeds all the wrong things. Children are the future, and what kind of legacy are we leaving them?”
As for world suffering, her message is clear. "We’re all from the same tree trunk. In the autumn the leaves are all different colours and its very beautiful, so stop this racism, this hatred towards differences.”